What Parents Need to Know About Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, an Illness Related to COVID-19

Researchers are learning more about multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a rare COVID-related inflammatory illness that affects children and teens. Although the physical symptoms associated with the condition — which may include a rash, fever, bloodshot eyes, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, neck pain, fatigue, and, most concerning, heart problems — have been previously studied, it may affect patients' neurological well-being, too.

Although medical experts do not know specifically what causes MIS-C, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explained that it typically occurs in young people who have had COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus. Moreover, the condition typically emerges between two and six weeks after a young person contracts COVID-19 and displays zero or mild symptoms. Research has found that children with more serious COVID-19 symptoms do not typically contract MIS-C.

"Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) is a condition where different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs," reads the CDC's website. "We do not yet know what causes MIS-C. However, we know that many children with MIS-C had the virus that causes COVID-19, or had been around someone with COVID-19. MIS-C can be serious, even deadly, but most children who were diagnosed with this condition have gotten better with medical care."

Unfortunately, MIS-C may lead to neurological problems as well. A new study from the American Academy of Neurology found that of the 46 patients they studied last year at the Great Ormond Street Hospital in England — who were 65 percent male with a median age of 10.2 years old — 24 of them "presented with new neurological symptoms involving both the central and peripheral nervous systems, in the absence of respiratory symptoms." Specifically, these patients experienced symptoms they never had before, like headaches, hallucinations, seizures, confusion, speech impairments, and problems with balance and coordination, according to The New York Times. These neurological issues typically subside with proper medical treatment.

There have been 3,185 known cases in the US, which have resulted in 36 deaths.

Study author Omar Abdel-Mannan, MD, a clinical research fellow at University College London's Institute of Neurology, told The New York Times that patients experiencing neurological issues were more likely to require ventilators because they become "very unwell with systemic shock as part of their hyperinflammatory state." They were also twice as likely to require heart medication.

American researchers have also reported that some patients have exhibited neurological symptoms. In a report published in JAMA Neurology on March 5, 2021, experts found that of the 1,695 patients being observed, 365 — or 22 percent of them — had neurological issues.

They also determined that patients who had a history of underlying neurological disorders were more likely to exhibit these symptoms. Of the children who had neurologic involvement, 322 patients (88 percent) "had transient symptoms and survived" and 43 children (12 percent) developed life-threatening conditions — like severe encephalopathy, central nervous system infections, Guillain-Barré syndrome, or acute fulminant cerebral edema — that are associated with COVID-19.

The CDC has been tracking the frequency of the rare but serious cases of MIS-C since mid-May 2020. According to data that was last updated on March 29, 2021, there have been 3,185 known cases in the US, which have resulted in 36 deaths. Moreover, 63 percent of the reported cases have occurred in children who identify as Hispanic or Latino (1,023 cases) or Black, non-Hispanic (868 cases). Overall, 3.54 million American children have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 172 kids have passed away from the illness as of Dec. 17, 2020.

The CDC is encouraging parents to seek medical attention immediately if their child has been exposed to COVID-19 and is experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Pain or pressure in the chest that does not go away
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone
  • Severe abdominal pain